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West Somerset Railway is the longest independent railway in England. It stretches 20 miles from a village outside Taunton called Bishops Lydeard to Minehead a seaside town. Along the route the train stops at 8 stations and passes through magnificent countryside with views of the Quantock Hills, Exmoor coastline and even across to South Wales on a clear day. On route the train stops at eight stations - each one unique. Most of the trains are steam although there are a couple of heritage diesel trains.
What makes the railway special is that it is largely run by volunteers and has a huge network of supporters. The volunteers care for each station and have enormous pride in keeping it authentic for the time period and picturesque. Volunteers travel from considerable distance to help on a regular basis. There is a friendly rivalry between the stations culminating in a "best kept station" annual award. Volunteers also work on the trains and track and in the shops and also in the sheds restoring trains and carriages. All the carriages have been restored to reflect they way they would have looked in their hey day. There is a buffet car on board which stocks local products including a local real ale. There is also a large guards van which can take bikes.
The journey end to end takes approximately one and a quarter hours allowing time to take in the view and appreciate each station. Most of the track is single with a couple of stations having double tracks to allow trains to pass each other. A good ticket to buy is the "rover" which allows a passenger to hop and off as they wish and explore the surrounding areas around the stations, or walk to the next station.
Crowcombe Heathfield is set in beautiful walking country. A frequent winner of the "Best Kept Station Award" with old fashion waiting room, guards room (with open fire) and flowers galore in the summer. This station featured on "Hard Days Night" Beatles film and more recently in Land Girls. It also "hosts" Father Christmas during the Christmas season.
Watchet Station is in the centre of a small former harbour town which has shops, pubs, museums and a marina. Dunster Station is a twenty minute walk from the impressive Dunster Castle, a National Trust property and the quaint village of Dunster.
Bishops Lydeard station , the start (or finish) of the ride has an excellent souvenir shop, café and model shop and a Guage Museum. The car park is free but for those without a car there is a bus direct from Taunton main line station. Minehead, at the other end is central in a vibrant seaside town with Butlins nearby.
Travelling on the train is like a step back in time. People are friendly and the atmosphere is quaint and old fashioned. There are a number of different steam engines including guest ones for special weekends. Unless you are a train enthusiast it may be best to avoid the special steam weekends which take place during the year, they are extremely busy with enthusiasts videoing and recording trains and dashing station to station. Likewise there are a couple of diesel only weekends and a Thomas the Tank one for children.
Travelling the railway is a great day out. West Somerset is largely unknown and this is a great way to experience it. Check the website for details.
Minehead can look a bit dismal when it's cloudy. A pretty, Victorian town, it is well catered for with entertainment courtesy of a massive Butlins Complex, but the beach didn't look at all appealing after our short journey there from the village in Exmoor where we were staying. The clouds that had been promised to melt away were sticking stubbornly over us and threatening to dump their entire contents any second now. Not wishing to spend a small fortune being fleeced by the local penny (hah!) arcades, although our two kids were keen, we distracted them by pointing out the large steam engine that was puffing contentedly in the nearby station. Perfect. If the threatened flood was going to fall, at least we'd be undercover. There was quite a queue at the authentic old-fashioned ticket office, but a family ticket for £21 was purchased successfully before the train was due to depart. Our two kids are generally full of beans, and being that they were now in a highly excitable state, I was desperate to find a carriage to ourselves. I hate having to spend hours constantly nagging at them and apologising to strangers, life's too short. Having managed to beat an old couple (I have no shame) to an empty compartment, and spreading the coats, bags and kiddie paraphenalia over the seats to give the impression that sharing the journey with us was not an appealing prospect, we settled in for the ride. The train was the genuine article, with as many original fixtures and fittings as had been allowed to survive over the years. Comfortable bench seats, complete with little lights and netted luggage racks, all decked out in functional brown and cream. The windows were large, clean, and slid open with little effort, allowing a person's head enough room to be pushed out for better viewing. I wasn't keen for the kids to try this when the train was moving, so we let them look out while the train was still stationary. They had smut
on their faces when they pulled their heads back in though, although I suppose that's part and parcel of the experience. (Smuts, by the way, are the sooty deposits given off with the steam - not to be confused with a South African politician). The whistle blew, the steam billowed past the window and we were off. It's a soothing, rhythmic jerking as the train starts to build up it's speed, swaying you from side to side in a way that for some reason isn't as annoying as when modern trains do it. Upon leaving Minehead, you travel past the sea, looking out over Blue Anchor Bay, and arrive at Marsh Street, the first stop. Because the railway doesn't just exist for tourist benefit, some of the stops are'nt particularly attractive although they are functional for regular users. This was one of them. After that it's Blue Anchor, Watchet and Doniford, then you can say goodbye to the views of St. Audries Bay as the train turns off and begins the journey inland through the lower parts of the Quantock Hills. Here you roll through fields and villages, feeling not unlike you're taking part in a scene from The Railway Children, as people will gather to wave as you rumble past. Everyone seems to smile when they see these trains, especially those clad in anoraks and clutching small books. Even when it started to pour with rain, they simply pulled up their hoods and held their ground, and although I have never had a real interest in these things, I could understand the romance of the hobby. These were graceful, powerful beasts. The smell was wonderful. Sooty, oily and probably very bad for the lungs, but the damp air helped it cling around the train to keep adding to the atmosphere of going back to the 'good old days'. The journey was a thrilling experience for the kids. Their noses were pressed against the windows for much of the time, although, as children do, they also had to keep checki
ng out the toilets and the fact that they could actually go whilst travelling along. They really enjoyed this, and thankfully the toilets were sparkling clean so the more than occasional trip presented no problems and me not having to keep yelling, "Don't touch the seat. Keep your hands up. Hold onto me. For God's sake don't put your hands on there. I know there's no soap. Or towels. Dry your hands on my coat." Passing places with lovely names like Stogumber you keep climbing up until you reach Bishops Lydeard, just outside of Taunton. It's taken about 1hr and a half, so we get out for a quick stretch of the legs, the kids check out the local loo, and then it's back in for the return journey down. Coffee and refreshments were available so after gathering some more energy, we settle down to play games of eye-spy and who can be the first one to spot the sea. Doesn't sound too gripping but again it keeps the children occupied. We arrived back in Minehead 3 hours after we'd left, dry, contented and strangely relaxed. Everyone had smuts but me (it ruins your hair to stick it out of the window into steam, wind and driving rain) and happy smiles on their faces. I never got the number of the train (sorry, trainspotting fanatics) but it was a Great Western model and I have to admit to feeling a little emotional about it. My Grandad had worked for GWR for many years as a Stable Lad at Paddington. It made me wonder whether he'd led the Shire Horse wagons to this very train when loading it with goods. Probably not, but there's no harm in lying to myself that he did. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a dismal day in West Somerset.
The West Somerset Steam Railway - 20 miles of history still in perfect working order, taking you from Bishops Lydeard near Taunton out to Minehead on the coast. The stations, posters, pictures, equipment, still in mint condition, remind you of days gone by, when steam ruled and a train journey was a pleasant affair. The line is one of the country's most visited and succesful, attracting so many passengers that in high season the service is supplemented with Diesel engines. Heresy I know, but restoring steam engines takes time! A rather pricey ticket (£9.30 rtn or £10 all day rover), will take you on the 70 minute journey along the line, alternatively pick it up at any of it's stops en route as it winds it's way through gorgeous Somerset out to the coast. Stops on the way for visitors include the Bee Farm at Stogumber, the picturesque town of Watchet, the endless beach at Blue Anchor and the end of the line is busy (by comparison) Minehead, with a Butlins holiday park, and plenty of sand to park yourselves on by the sea. The trains have a buffet and bar service, are also cleaner and more reliable than anything claiming to be a train service in the modern sense, and are a perfect way to pass a day in the countryside. Further practicality for the foot passenger - Bishops Lydeard and the Railway link with county town Taunton by way of bus - you can even get a joint steam-bus ticket! Go now! - your Dad will love it (aren't they all steam enthusiasts!?) - he can even fork out for a course to become a co-driver for the day - complete with uniform and pulls of the whistle!